'We think of this school as a community': The Wednesday morning circle at the ALC

Winona ALC circle students staff

Winona ALC students and staff take part in an all-school circle on Wednesday, Sept. 4. The ALC will begin every day with the circle, which is like a family meeting in which students and staff can discuss anything they need.

Every Wednesday morning, students and staff at the Winona Area Learning Center begin their day with an all-school circle. 

Think of it as a family meeting, one that will serve a different purpose throughout the school year.

“We use circles as our way to build relationships and decrease tension as it arises,” ALC principal Emily Cassellius said. “It will be used for school-wide problem solving, any relationship issues. We’ll also use it for team building. We have a lot of new staff, and we think of this school as a community.” 

Last Wednesday, Cassellius and school social worker Angela McQuinn used it as an unofficial kick-off to the school year. 

Cassellius went over a few rules, such as making sure students leave their backpacks in the locker. She also said that different teachers may have different expectations, so students need to be flexible. And she used it as an opportunity to introduce the staff, some of whom are new, others who have been around for a while.

McQuinn introduced the students to the circle concept. She shared guidelines, such as respecting the person who was talking. She told the students they need to “speak from the heart” but also “listen from the heart.” Respect is key. So is confidentiality.

She then opened up the floor for students to suggest their own rules. After all, this is a family meeting.

“Don’t bring your drama to the circle,” one student said, a point that was echoed by a veteran staff member.

“If you have a specific problem with someone,” science teacher Joel Bruels said, “it’s probably better served in a smaller setting.”

The students were asked to describe their summer in one word. “Fun,” “boring,” and “work” were the most popular answers for the students. “Family,” “travel,” and “short” were popular answers for the teachers.

Then McQuinn forced the students and staff to dig a little deeper. She asked about the one person who had the biggest positive influence on their lives. She started by sharing her truth and speaking from the heart about a relationship in her life that appeared to be negative at the outset, but she explained how it affected her life in a positive way.

Others chimed in as well. 

“My dad.”

“Grandma.”

“My mom.”

“Myself.”

“My brother.”  

Many of the student parents said their child had the biggest positive influence. One said her son “encourages me to move forward,” while another said her daughter “kept me from doing stupid things when I was pregnant.”

Not every student had an answer, and McQuinn made sure to come back to those students later. If they still didn’t answer, she asked others to offer suggestions. She didn’t give up on any student.

Before the students shared, they each cut off a short piece of ribbon, then tied that ribbon to the ribbon of the person sitting next to them. The long loop of ribbon will hang in the school throughout the year, reminding the students of the bond that was started on this Wednesday morning. 

Then, to help celebrate the start of school, Cassellius brought out boxes of Bloedow’s donuts and turned up the music. Then, out of the office, danced Herky the Winhawk, who greeted the students and posed for pictures. Some of the student parents were able to get their kids out of the child care to have a little fun before class started. 

The first family meeting of the year then came to an end, and the students shuffled off to class, ready to start the school year together.

About the Winona Area Learning Center

Since 1985, the Winona Area Learning Center has been "A Second Chance at Learning" for students who for many reasons were unable to achieve and graduate from the traditional K-12 setting. The WALC is a year-round program for students in grades 6-12. 

Policies, rules, educational objectives and resources are designed to accommodate student needs and provide a comprehensive education using non-traditional methods consistent with the goals of the district. Those enrolled as Independent Study students check in weekly rather than attending daily.

All academics at the WALC are taught by first assessing the incoming students' performance levels and then individualizing the instruction. Curriculum is in place for the following subjects: English, Social Studies, Science, Math, and Physical Education. Electives include Work Skills, Work Experience, Art, and Active Parenting.

The WALC also has a teen parent program which offers courses in Parenting and Prenatal. The WALC has an on-site child care center for infants and toddlers of high school students.

Students at the WALC may receive high school credit for employment. Students are required to take a semester of work-skills seminar. The work-skills coordinator conducts on-site visits to the students' place of employment.